I think we all remember where we were when we heard about the horrific events in Orlando seven years ago. June 12, 2016 or 6/12/16. And we all remember the days and weeks after as we tried to deal with what had happened. I had the chance to go to the site of the club in 2019 and mentioned what it was like in Travel Thursday: Pulse Interim Memorial Pulls At Your Heart And Revives Some Tough Emotions.
Fortunately, I was not as close to some that experienced Pulse or knew close friends at Pulse, but the emotions are still strong.
We wanted to share another’s remembrance of Pulse and Good Morning America’s coverage of Pulse.
Tiara Kelly, a Black, trans woman who lost friends at both the Pulse Nightclub and Club Q shootings, spoke with “Good Morning America” Digital about how she’s working to protect safe spaces for the next generation of LGBTQ+ performers.
“GMA” Digital also spoke with Kelly’s “drag daughter,” a Black trans woman who talks about how rare it is to see another Black transgender person grow older, citing the high rates of violence affecting trans women of color.
Today marks the seven-year anniversary of the Pulse shooting, and this story is part of “GMA” Digital’s “Protecting Pride: Resilience After Tragedy,” a month-long series during Pride Month that highlights the LGBTQ+ community’s strength and unity in the face of anti-LGBTQ+ laws and nationwide tragedies, exploring the concept of safety and the community’s collective progress.
The Pulse and Club Q shootings shut down her local bars. She’s fighting to protect the next generation’s LGBTQ+ safe spaces.
Tiara Kelley, 42, said she had planned to be at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on the night of the 2016 shooting that left 49 people dead and 53 more wounded.
Instead, she said she fell asleep at a friend’s house just down the road from the club before she headed there for the night.
She said she was awakened by the sounds of ambulances and fire trucks rushing to the scene where she would later discover several of her friends were killed in the same place they would dance, laugh and drink together.
Six years later in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Kelley said she found herself confronted with a hauntingly familiar tragedy.
Kelley had just become a show producer and frequent patron of the local LGBTQ+ bar Club Q in her new city.
She said she had fallen ill following dialysis treatments on Nov. 19, 2022, and instead of heading to the birthday celebration of a fellow drag queen that night at the bar, she stayed home.
Kelley said she woke up to a frantic call from a friend around midnight, asking if she was OK and telling her there was an active shooter at Club Q.
Five people were killed that night, and more than a dozen others were injured in the mass shooting. Once again, familiar names and faces were among those killed in the attack.
“You think to yourself, ‘Thank God that you made it through [Pulse], we lived through that, it’s good, that could never happen again, there’s no way that it would ever happen again,'” Kelley told ABC News in an interview.
“And then you move across the country, to a whole ‘nother state and out of all of the clubs in this area … it’s unbelievable.”
Having barely missed two deadly tragedies targeting the LGBTQ+ community, Kelley wonders if and when the next attack will strike.
“I’ve been through this twice,” Kelley said. “There’s no way I will make it through a third time. And that’s literally my thought almost everywhere I go.”
As a Black transgender woman, racism and transphobia in this country has never allowed Kelley to truly feel safe, she said — and these tragedies have only heightened her preexisting fears.
But in the wake of the Colorado Springs shooting, Kelley said she refuses to cower in the face of anti-LGBTQ+ hate. She said that’s the desired outcome of violence — to force the community into hiding.
“These types of people who did this — at Pulse, at Club Q, and all of these other places — they would love to see that their destruction has ruined lives,” Kelley said.
She added separately, “There are so many voices that are telling our youth that they’re wrong, and that they can’t be who they are, and that they’re full of these demons.”
Kelley refuses to let go of the things that fill her life with such joy and help her heal from her trauma — her drag shows, her drag family, her safe spaces.
“I believe what’s keeping me healthy and alive and in tune with myself is drag,” Kelley said. “It saved my life.
She added, “Every time I get up on stage, I’m a completely different person.”
So, Kelley created her own event production company to uplift the next generation of drag performers and give them a safe space to hone and embrace their craft.
She began her own drag family, taking young drag performers under her wing, including 21-year-old Leia Trillz Latrice, whom she met at Club Q before the tragedy.
Leia, who didn’t have much family of her own except for her mother when she moved to Colorado Springs, found solace in Kelley’s offering.
“Our relationship became more than just mentor-mentee, it was more like I was her actual child,” she said.
The Next Generation
At a May drag show, Leia came out of the dressing room wearing the sash and crown she earned at a pageant for young drag queens hosted by Kelley the night before.
Several children were in the crowd that evening, bouncing up and down in joy, offering her a tip when she twirled their way.
She began her set of performances by lip syncing to Beyoncé’s “I Was Here,” an emotional ballad about making a difference, touching people’s hearts and bringing happiness to the world.
“The hearts I have touched will be the proof that I leave
That I made a difference, and this world will see
I was here
I lived, I loved
I was here.”
As Leia circles the room, she meets a young girl with outstretched hands in the audience and holds her hands tight as she sings.
In a country where drag shows and drag story times are being targeted and restricted — with proponents of measures banning them claiming they’re dangerous for children — it was an innocent act of defiance.
“Let’s find a song that has a message, not only to myself, but to the Latin community, the Caucasian community, the LGBT community, whether you’re old or young, the straight community too,” Leia told ABC News of her thought process, in an interview.
She continued, “Let us perform something that they can understand or let us read them a book that teaches them there are different people.”
The conservative push to shut down drag performances represents just one battle Leia is facing based on her identity within the LGBTQ+ community. Like Kelley, she is a Black transgender woman who performs as a drag queen.
“A lot of Black trans people do not make it,” Leia said, referencing the high rates of violence and victimization facing Black transgender people. “Even when you do see people like us, they’re silent.”
Racism and transphobia converge to make discrimination two-fold for Kelley and Leia.
It’s rare to see an older Black transgender woman embrace her identity and uplift the community so proudly and unapologetically, Leia said. Kelley became somewhat of an inspiration for Leia, and it wasn’t long before the two became family.
Leia, meanwhile, represents the next generation to whom Kelley has dedicated her career in event production to uplift, one she said she hopes will change the negative narratives around drag and the queer community.
Leia was at Club Q the night of the November 2022 tragedy. She said she believes she brushed shoulders with the suspected shooter as she left the bar that night, and “two minutes after walking out, I turned around to all the shots,” she said.
Both Leia and Kelley nearly met the same tragic fate. In honor of those they lost, and in support of the ones they love, they say they hope the joy of performance and family can heal the community.
“There’s nothing I can do but grow and try to make a safe space for somebody else,” Leia said.
Source: ABC News Digital/”Good Morning America” Digital and Kiara Alfonseca